Byfar the worst appointment made by Boris Johnson in his cabinet reshuffle last month was that of Anne-Marie Trevelyan as secretary of state for international development. An ardent Brexiteer, Trevelyan has no known interest in overseas development; just about her only previous public utterance on the subject was an observation that ‘charity begins at home.’ But then she is only the latest head of the department – there have been five in the last four years – whose commitment to international development has been, to say the least, suspect. Of the most recent only Rory Stewart (2016-18) had any serious track record of interest in ‘Abroad’ and he is no longer a member of the Tory Party, having been expelled in the purge of Brexit dissidents.

What to do about overseas aid has long been a problem for the Conservatives. The Department for International Development (DFID), set up by the Blair government in 1997, is widely seen as a success. To borrow a phrase beloved of jingoists, our aid programme is one of the few areas where Britain is still seen as punching above its weight. The downside is that spending ever larger sums of taxpayers’ money on rescuing impoverished foreigners is not a cause popular with core Tory voters. Their resentment is fuelled by a persistent narrative in the tabloid media that most British aid is either stolen, squandered or lavished on the undeserving.

It’s now hard to recall that there was a moment, not so distant, when the Tories signed up wholeheartedly to the Blair government’s commitment to reach the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) annually on development aid. Twenty years ago, following a series of scandals and the suggestion that they were seen as the ‘nasty party’, such a commitment was seen by Tory strategists as a precondition for the party’s rehabilitation. And in fairness it must be said that successive Tory leaders have stuck to it. The 0.7 per cent figure was reached in 2013, on David Cameron’s watch, an achievement regarded with pride. Theresa May, on the eve of her departure from Downing Street, went out of her way to reaffirm the commitment. Even Boris Johnson is standing by it – for now.

The promise that DFID will remain a separate government department with a ring-fenced budget has, however, proved more controversial. Overseas aid used to be controlled by the Foreign Office, whose ministers and officials tended to regard the aid budget as their spending arm. It was also used as a sweetener for trade deals. In 1993 there was a scandal when the National Audit Office discovered that British aid money had, some years earlier, been used to subsidise the construction of the Pergau Dam in Malaysia in return for an arms contract worth a billion pounds. Margaret Thatcher herself had endorsed the scheme. The resulting furore prompted the Labour opposition to commit to managing the aid budget through a new, separate department, independent of competing government interests and focused on the poorest people in the poorest countries.

It nearly didn’t happen. The Foreign Office mounted a strong rearguard action (they’re still at it) and in 1997 almost succeeded in persuading the incoming Blair government to abandon its pledge. In the end it went ahead. The department was set up with Clare Short as its first secretary of state; against the odds she remained in the job for six years and DFID became internationally respected. In the early days there were a number of skirmishes. Foreign Office ministers and ambassadors continued to make commitments to spend money that was no longer theirs to dispose of, whereupon Short would deduct the cost of such pledges from the limited discretionary budget allowed them by DFID. They eventually got the message.

Just to be sure, the 2002 International Development Act, which I helped pilot through Parliament, firmly tied future aid to poverty relief, thereby making impossible a repeat of earlier scandals. ‘A useful little Bill,’ Short whispered to me as we sat on the front bench. ‘It makes impossible many of the things that the Foreign Office keep pressing us to do.’ It went through with the enthusiastic support of the Tory opposition, whose spokesman even had the nerve to demand that the government increase spending on development aid. No one listening would have guessed that overseas aid had almost halved under previous Tory administrations.

Until recently this consensus broadly held. ‘There is not a Labour or a Conservative policy on international development. There is a British one,’ said Andrew Mitchell, who eventually became the first Tory secretary of state at DFID in 2010. Mitchell turned out to be a success. In two years in office he cut bureaucracy, disposed of the department’s luxurious offices in Palace Street and tacked towards delivering aid through the private sector and multinational agencies. But the basic framework he inherited was preserved intact. Unusually for a Conservative politician, Mitchell was committed to ensuring that the UK played its part in tackling global poverty.

Eight years and six secretaries of state later, there remains much to cheer. The UK is one of only five countries to have met the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of GNI on international aid. In real terms Britain is the world’s third-largest donor, after the US and Germany: DFID has an annual budget of £11 billion, with a further £3.5 billion managed by other departments. The British taxpayer gets better value from overseas aid than from most other areas of government. The UK aid programme has helped eradicate smallpox and almost eliminate polio; it has made headway against malaria and the spread of Aids. Through various multilateral agencies the UK makes a major contribution to food aid and education, as well as providing sanitation and medical care to victims of the world’s most intractable conflicts and natural disasters. Since the beginning of the Syria crisis the UK has spent £2.8 billion on support for Syrian refugees and is a leading source of support for displaced people elsewhere.

In countries with weak infrastructure British aid helps create functioning market economies: training soldiers, civil servants and the judiciary; helping to fund and monitor free elections. British aid also helps fragile countries construct credible systems of taxation, thereby providing weak governments with increased revenue to spend on the welfare of their people. In the early part of this century the UK also led the way in organising debt relief for the world’s poorest and most heavily indebted countries. Contrary to what is sometimes alleged, where governments are corrupt or incompetent aid is channelled through non-governmental agencies, including charities such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières. What happens to the aid budget is carefully monitored by the Independent Aid Commission and the House of Commons International Aid Committee: where there is evidence of misspending, it is withdrawn. Yes, there is sometimes waste, but rather less than in most other major spending departments.

The bottom line is this: it’s not in the interests of Britain or its neighbours to permit failed states to exist on the frontiers of Europe, with all that implies in terms of mass migration, terrorism and the spread of disease. Nor should we imagine, as we sit smugly behind our borders, that we can create a fortress island (coronavirus is proof enough of that). For all these reasons – honour, morality, value for money, self-interest – there is a cast-iron case for preserving and wisely using the aid and development budget.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it this way. Old habits are beginning to reassert themselves. Other parts of government are beginning to cast envious eyes at DFID’s annual budget. The Ministry of Defence, whose capacity for waste and incompetence is legendary, already has its fingers in the pie as a consequence of our disastrous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has made no secret of its desire to use aid to promote British business interests abroad, especially in Africa. And the Foreign Office remains as eager as ever to take back control.

In February 2017 Dominic Raab, now the foreign secretary, argued on the website ConservativeHome that the number of government departments should be cut by half. ‘A popular start,’ he wrote, ‘would be to scrap DFID, moving its functions to the Foreign Office.’ Later that year Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary at the time, suggested that UK aid should be ‘more sensibly distributed’ in line with the government’s foreign policy aims. Shortly afterwards the House of Commons International Development Committee warned that the UK’s development budget was in danger of becoming ‘a slush fund to pay for developing the UK’s diplomatic, trade or national security interests’ (one figure cited was the £43 million ‘Prosperity Fund’ managed by the Foreign Office, some of which was invested in the Chinese film industry). Undeterred, in February last year Bob Seeley, a Tory MP, and James Rogers of the Henry Jackson Society, a right-wing think tank, published a pamphlet called Global Britain: A Blueprint for the 21st Century. This suggested, among other things, that the £300 million bill for the BBC World Service and the cost of the MoD’s involvement in UN peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden should both come out of the aid budget.

In the coming years, the amount of aid spending that is funnelled through departments other than DFID (thus circumventing the International Development Act) can be expected to grow. In fact, a vehicle already exists through which funds can be diverted. The Commonwealth Development Corporation was established in 1948 to promote investment in former British colonies. In 2016 it was relaunched as the CDC Group, with a worldwide remit and a larger share of the aid budget. As of last year it has more than £4 billion invested in 66 countries, mainly in Africa and South Asia. In principle this makes good sense. CDC exists to invest in economies where the private sector fears to tread. Its investments are intended to provide stable employment and help leverage private sector funds; profits are reinvested. Nonetheless, the aid sector eyes its widening activity nervously. CDC executives appear to live well: in the last available annual report 12 of its senior employees were earning more than £300,000 a year. In March last year the Independent Aid Commission issued an ‘amber/red’ warning about CDC, accusing it of losing sight of its core purpose, directing too much investment towards larger, safer economies and failing to monitor the impact of spending. Some of its projects – a luxury hotel in Nigeria, a shopping mall in Kenya, gated housing in El Salvador – can’t be said to have a great deal to do with alleviating poverty. What’s more, some of its private sector partners appear to be operating out of tax havens. Stand by for much more of this.

In his reshuffle, the prime minister stopped short of abolishing DFID, but he decreed – as a step in that direction – that all junior ministers there or at the Foreign Office should in future be accredited to both departments and that the heads of DFID missions are to report to the UK ambassador in their host country. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU will free up the 11 per cent of the aid budget that is currently channelled through Brussels. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this and what results from the ‘integrated review’ of foreign policy, defence and development currently underway. ‘If “Global Britain” is going to achieve its … massive potential,’ Johnson said last year, ‘then we must bring back DFID to the FCO. We can’t keep spending large sums of British taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO.’ The writing is on the wall.

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Vol. 42 No. 7 · 2 April 2020

I enjoyed Chris Mullin’s account of the triumphs and travails of the Department for International Development (LRB, 19 March). He raises the prospect that DFID’s sensible strictures on the use of development aid could increasingly be circumvented by channelling aid budgets through the rather more freewheeling CDC Group. However, his history of that organisation isn’t entirely accurate; indeed, the truth is even more troubling than his account suggests. CDC was not established in 1948 as the ‘Commonwealth Development Corporation’ with a remit ‘to promote investment in former British colonies’. In fact, its first incarnation was the Colonial Development Corporation (the name change came in 1963), and its remit was to fund development projects in colonial possessions in accordance with the political and economic priorities of the metropole. In its early years, the overwhelming preoccupation was with dollar earnings for the sterling area, and the CDC pursued damaging, monocultural export projects which often made little sense beyond the ledgers of London’s balance sheet. Even the Economist wondered whether the principal remit of the CDC was not ‘exploiting the colonies’. Some of these schemes were spectacular failures, such as the enormous Gambia poultry concern which had produced zero eggs and many millions of dead chickens by the time it was abandoned in 1951. The CDC’s early attempts to bend colonial and Commonwealth development projects around metropolitan policy interests are a further warning against a return to such practices in international development aid.

Alistair Kefford
University of Leicester

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